On the late evening of 20 March, the bell rang for the next round to begin. A three hour and twenty-minute long debate between the five leading contenders began. It is difficult to say how many viewers there were but it is estimated that it was the most watched programme on TV that evening. François Fillon, Benoît Hamon, Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Luc Mélenchon lined up to do verbal battle.
It was difficult to conclude who ‘won’, but there is no doubt Le Pen lost. She often spoke drivel, was angry, aggressive and incoherent but with absolutely no economic policy on offer. Macron was at first quiet, appeared pensive until provoked into action and coming out on the offensive against Le Pen. Mélenchon was very surprising, normally a grumpy, aggressive persona but this time he came across as the only one with a real sense of humour. Hamon fired a few good shots but was actually the outsider. Fillon showed his political experience by being controlled and mainly to the point, however also carefully avoiding hard ground in case he was forced to crash land. In the summing up statements the only one who was convincing was Macron. He had composed and well-prepared things to say that Le Pen attacked, but in so doing she was fairly easily challenged and lost credibility. The relatively low importance of Europe in the French election agenda was highlighted by the fact that it was only discussed briefly toward the end; however, Fillon and Macron made it very clear that Le Pen was talking poppycock about Brexit being a success. Thus, the debate did her no favours at all, perhaps did Fillon some, but not enough, and Macron remained fairly unblemished.
The ringside spectators’ view
The next evening, early polls on the debate showed Macron on 29%, Mélenchon on 20%, Le Pen and Fillon both 19% and Hamon 16% on the question who came out best and is most suited to be the next president. Mélenchon ahead of Le Pen was something of a surprise but then Hamon is probably not left enough for the left and is PS which is a tainted party after Hollande’s presidency. However, those polls were looking at the debate rather than manifestos. In France, although they are no longer as popular as they were in the past, polls tend to be more representative and also campaigning is very different to what many people elsewhere expect. The compilation of polls that bfmtv runs on their site (www.bfmtv.com/politique/sondage/) showed Le Pen and Macron neck and neck on 26% with Fillon on 17%. Now, 48 hours later, 90 polls from 10 survey institutes give Macron 26% but Le Pen 24.5%, Fillon has stayed as he was, but Mélenchon appears to have picked up the 1.5% Le Pen has lost, going up from 12% to 13.5%. I watched and re-watched the debate and could see how the polls directly after and based on the debate had come out as they did. Fillon came across as the professional politician, Mélenchon was light and witty, Hamon was lost in the crowd, Le Pen was all over the place and bad tempered, thus whilst Macron started slowly, he gained in confidence and took the evening from round about an hour in and lasted well until the end. That was just the big debate, now the ‘fun’ begins, although the campaign season doesn’t officially open until 10 April, two weeks before the first round of voting.
Fighting for survival
France’s traditional political party system is fighting for survival this election, with mainstream left and right at risk of being knocked out by two political outsiders. Macron has risen from almost obscurity as an independent centrist whereas far right Le Pen is a well known and very public figure whose apparent popularity is not backed up by FN parliamentary representation. She has never won a parliamentary election herself, thus ranks alongside the UK’s Farage as an eternally aspirant frontline politician who perpetually fails, even when they look like odds on favourites.
The crowd is turning away from the right-hand corner where there has been dirty fighting
This two-round presidential vote is followed immediately by parliamentary elections inspired to an extent by the success of the Dutch centre-right party led by the sitting PM, Mark Rutte, defeating the populist, anti-Islam, anti-EU Geert Wilders into second place in Netherlands. The question is whether the tide of movement toward the far right is falling back. The Austrian general election in December saw voters rejecting the anti-immigration and Euro-sceptic challenger Norbert Hofer’s bid to become the EU’s first far right president. Instead, an independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen who was backed by the Greens took 53.3% of the vote against 46.7% for his rival from the Freedom Party. Wilder’s show of bravado and confidence he could win but the refusal of all other parties in the Dutch parliament already showed growing defiance against well supported far-right parties that in their wake are defusing the effect of fears of widespread right-wing influence that would undermine the European project.
At present polls suggest the final round runoff on 7 May could deal a mortal blow to traditional parties by seeing centrist Macron against the far right Le Pen, whose FN has made small gains in elections since she took over leadership from her father in 2011. In 2002 he made it to the final round, creating political upheaval. However, he was convincingly defeated by the right-wing Jacques Chirac who took 82% of votes. Now his daughter has been predicted to win the first round with the runoff much closer. Polls suggest she will be beaten by whoever else makes the second vote and that she cannot possibly win more than 50% required to become the next president. However, election watchers are cautious because whilst Les Républicains have been seriously damaged by corruption scandals, the PS is considered a failed party and now interior minister Bruno Le Roux has been forced to resign because he had employed his teenage daughters as parliamentary assistants during the school holidays, despite their own funding corruption scandals, the FN electoral base remains solid. As a consequence, this election appears to be marked by the traditional right-left divide becoming unclear as new divisions between the liberal, pro-globalisation position and ‘close-our-borders’ and bring back our money nationalism emerge. Thus the weekend before the debate was being called the ‘final round’ in the battle of France’s almost terminally divided left. Meanwhile, back on the right of the ring, a painful jab hit Fillon. There are new allegations that he was paid $50,000 to arrange a meeting between a Lebanese billionaire and Vladimir Putin which came just when prosecutors investigating whether his wife was paid for fake jobs hat widened their inquiry to look into the possibility that she had signed forged documents a week after he had been placed under formal investigation. His pleas that he was the ‘nice guy’ up to and through how he presented himself in the debate suffered yet another serious bruising.
The left punches back
Meanwhile, back on the left, Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise movement marched on the Bastille and Hamon held a rally at an arena not far from his former office when he was a junior economy minister in Hollande’s government, which he ultimately refused to support. The timing of both events was viewed as an inopportune coincidence rather than calculated provocation and came at a time when both candidates were struggling to be heard above the dissonance of political scandals that are nothing to do with either of them but have undermined any chance of the left’s debate attracting media attention.
Since Hamon won the PS primary elections in January, several ministers have declared their support for their party’s rival Macron, who refused an invitation to take part in the PS primary process. Manuel Valls, the former prime minister, the early favourite to win the PS primaries, admitted that he would not support their official candidate, despite previously declaring he intended to do so. Now the list of leading PS members falling in line with Macron is becoming very impressive with insiders saying that although nothing will be said officially, Hollande is now backing him. The left of PS will ultimately be forced to choose between their candidate Hamon and rival Mélenchon, whereas moderates and centre-leftists are lined up behind Macron. The question is what effect that will have on 23 April?
For now, there will be light sparring with a few body blows until 10 April; then a flurry of punches aimed to do serious damage until the fourth round, the election of 23 April.